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UX Design
< 5 minute read

The Danger of Dark Patterns (With Infographic)

Are manipulative design techniques undermining your product and leading users to make bad decisions? Here’s how to avoid dark patterns and create ethical products that enhance customer trust.

Dark patterns are a popular design topic but defining them can be difficult. That’s because they’ve become so prevalent that many have been adopted as design conventions. It’s crucial to understand these manipulative techniques in order to create ethical products that enhance customer trust.

As designers we use our expertise to create user experiences that are practical and intuitive. This often means using persuasive design patterns to encourage customers toward decisions that benefit our clients, such as completing purchases or upgrading services. Persuasive patterns may include creating a sense of scarcity, using social proof to amplify trustworthiness, and rewarding customers to instill a feeling of accomplishment.

Persuasion is a positive feature of effective design, as long as it helps customers achieve what they want to achieve. But things go dark when design patterns do the opposite, pushing customers to make decisions that violate their intentions or best interests.

What Are Dark Patterns?

Put simply, dark patterns are carefully crafted interfaces that trick people into making decisions or performing actions that they otherwise would not. Dark patterns can range from subtle omissions to outright lies, but what they all have in common is that they undermine users’ intentions and cost them time or money they never meant to spend.

The Problem With Dark Patterns

Dark patterns exploit human psychology for the sole purpose of encouraging people to act against their best interests. This is unethical and can be illegal. A 2019 report from Princeton University revealed the prevalence of dark patterns. The researchers analyzed about 53,000 product pages from 11,000 shopping websites and found that 11% of the sites surveyed featured dark patterns that were aggressive, misleading, deceitful, and potentially unlawful.

Dark patterns make customers unhappy and cause them to lose trust in a business. According to PwC, a majority of customers said that the customer experience was one of the most important factors in their decision to buy. Dark patterns equal bad customer experience. Bad customer experience equals loss of customers. It’s that simple.

How Designers Can Push Back

As designers, it’s our job to help clients understand what dark patterns are and why it’s unwise to use them. For example, a client may think they can increase customer retention and profits by making it difficult for users to cancel their subscriptions. In this scenario, it’s the designer’s responsibility to push back and explain that this tactic will likely lead to frustration and negative reviews instead.

Designers should always advocate for transparent user experiences that give customers the power to make their own decisions. Balancing business goals with great user experience can be difficult, but dark patterns are never the answer.

In order to remain ethical, designers can ask these questions:

  • Does this design have the customer’s best interest in mind?
  • If I were the customer, would I feel that I’m being treated honestly?
  • Could this design pattern damage my client’s reputation?
  • Is this design unlawful?

Ethical Alternatives to Dark Patterns

This UX infographic illustrates 13 of the most common and annoying patterns that are encountered on the web and suggests replacements. It should be noted that while these patterns are often used individually, they’re also often used in combinations.

Download a PDF version of this infographic.

Dark Patterns Erode Customer Trust

It can be tempting to turn to dark patterns in an attempt to increase user engagement, subscriptions, and purchases. But incorporating these manipulative techniques will ultimately erode customer trust and may shrink the size of your user base. Providing customers with an experience that keeps their best interest in mind is the smart way to protect your business in the long run.

Further reading on the Toptal Blog:

  1. How to Design for Maximum Product Trust
  2. Persuasive Design: Using Advanced Psychology Effectively
  3. Pixels of Influence: Breaking Down Persuasive Design Principles